January 04, 2007


Sibelius: Kullervo—Symphonic Poem for Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra, op. 7. Satu Vilhavainen, soprano; Juha Uusitalo, bass-baritone; Kauppakorkeakoulun Ylioppilaskunnan Laulajat—Male Chorus; and Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz, conducted by Ari Rasilainen. CPO. $16.99 (SACD).

     Although it was withdrawn not long after its triumphant premiere and was not performed again during the composer’s lifetime, Jean Sibelius’ Kullervo had a lasting impact on Finnish nationalism and the world’s music.  The reason is that this was Sibelius’ first foray into large-scale use of Finland’s ancient epic, the Kalevala, with the intent of promoting national consciousness and the Finnish experience in music.  This large-scale, sprawling work, first performed in 1892, looks very clearly ahead to Karelia (a piece of similar intent) of 1893 and to the much-better-known Lemminkäinen Suite of 1897 (and it is worth pointing out that that suite’s most famous movement, The Swan of Tuonela, was first written in 1893).  In orchestration, use of brass, giant climaxes and lengthy, meaningful pauses, Kullervo also looks ahead to Sibelius’ symphonies, the first of which was not to come until 1899.

     This splendid, nearly complete recording (which omits only some connective dialogue) shows the work’s strengths in full glory and its weaknesses with equal starkness.  In structure, Kullervo is part symphonic poem for orchestra, part cantata and part opera.  The first two of its five movements are orchestral, as is the fourth, but the work’s heart is in the third movement, a lengthy and intense tale of Kullervo’s fateful journey and ill-fated love.  Although described as a hero, Kullervo does nothing particularly heroic here: he is a tax collector who makes several attempts to pick women up (literally – into his sleigh); is roundly and creatively cursed by the first two women he accosts; and is successful with the third – who then turns out to be his long-lost sister.  This is no tale of passion like that of Siegmund and Sieglinde in Wagner’s Die Walküre: Kullervo’s sister kills herself, and at the end of the work, tormented by guilt, Kullervo falls on his own sword.

     What saves the story is the glorious music – and much of the third and fifth movements is glorious indeed.  The passionate singing of Satu Vilhavainen and Juha Uusitalo fully explores the operatic dimension of the story, while the excellent male chorus moves the tale smartly along.  The first two movements, “Introduction” (a sort of sound portrait of Kullervo’s personality) and “Kullervo’s Youth” (much of which is lullaby-like) are less effective than what comes after, and also more derivative in sound and structure – the first movement, in particular, is quite Brucknerian.  The fourth movement, a march called “Kullervo Goes to War,” is odd: it is a bouncy, almost rollicking piece, somewhat resembling a longer version of the more famous march from Karelia, but it fits poorly after the highly dramatic conclusion of the third movement, in which brother and sister realize who they are and what they have done.

     Kullervo may not be great music or even great Sibelius, but in its hints of what was to come and its own drama and intensity, it is a work very much worth hearing.  And CPO has complemented Ari Rasilainen’s excellent performance with fine presentation: the SACD sound is top-notch, the recording takes full advantage of surround-sound (and also sounds superb on a regular CD player), and the booklet contains full texts and translations.  The result is a first-class presentation of a highly interesting, if not quite first-class, piece of music.

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